While the Catholic Church celebrates November 1, All Saints’ Day, Protestants this year are remembering October 31, when Martin Luther is said to have nailed his 95 theses challenging the Catholic Church to the door of Wittenberg’s All Saints’ Church five hundred years ago. Celebrations of the event abound, not just in Germany but everywhere that Protestantism has sprung up since.
Historical Hungary is the eastern bastion of Protestantism, so remembrances have taken place in Slovakia, Hungary, and the Transylvanian part of Romania. A committee was set up to stage a “national” celebratory gathering to commemorate the event in Budapest. As far as I could ascertain, only the Magyarországi Evangélikus Egyház (Hungarian Lutheran Church) and the Magyarországi Református Egyház (Hungarian Reformed Church) were involved. The Catholic prelates stayed away, unlike in Germany where both Lutheran and Catholic clergy participated in church services and celebrations and vowed to do more for the unity of Christianity, according to the Associated Press.
The event took place in the László Papp Budapest Sports Arena that can seat 12,500 people, but the organizers slightly overestimated the interest. Quite a few seats were empty. Mind you, attendance was not free. It cost 500 forints (about $1.50), though for that one also got a sandwich and an apple. Before Zoltán Balog and Viktor Orbán delivered their speeches, a Lutheran bishop gave an invocation and a Reformed bishop a full-fledged service, called “istentisztelet” (veneration of God) in Hungarian.
But let’s move on quickly to Viktor Orbán’s speech because, let’s face it, most of the people paid the 500 forints to hear him. As far as Orbán speeches go, it was short, but it raised quite a few eyebrows among those who find Orbán’s governing style increasingly intolerable. The sentence that created the greatest stir was the prime minister’s claim that it is no accident but an “expression of God’s mercy” that Hungary currently has a Christian government. Hungary Today, an English language internet news site that is financed through hidden channels by the Hungarian government, reported on the speech in the briefest possible manner, which might have something to do with the fact that there were some truly unacceptable statements in his text.
Orbán defined himself as a Calvinist prime minister and said he was asked by the church leaders to deliver a speech to this crowd solely because of his religion. But surely, at a “national” celebration of the Reformation the prime minister’s religion is irrelevant. He is there as the political leader of the country. Just as Angela Merkel was at the German celebration not as the daughter of a Lutheran minister but as the chancellor of Germany. Orbán continued the Calvinist theme by recalling that “exactly 99 years ago anti-Christian forces killed our pre-eminent Calvinist prime minister, István Tisza [1861-1918].” This statement is untrue. Tisza’s death had nothing to do with his Calvinism. His murderers didn’t kill him for his Christian religion but because they considered him responsible, rightly or wrongly, for four years of brutal war. But such minor details don’t bother Viktor Orbán.
That was just the warm-up. He claimed that “our lives and our work are determined by a higher force and power.” It was God’s decision to place the Hungarians in the Carpathian Basin just as it was God’s ordinance that he is the prime minister of Hungary today. One mustn’t see the existence of a Christian government leading Hungary today as the “caprice of fate” but as “the manifestation of God’s grace.” He doubled down on this theme by saying that “we consider it a privilege that in this renewal [of the country] Providence has used us, our churches, the government and the free community of Hungarian citizens in the whole Carpathian Basin as instruments [of His will].” He added that Hungary will be a country “where all forms of work, from street sweeping to governing the country, serve the glory of God.” What can one say?
The final thought of the speech is perhaps the hardest to interpret. Orbán was talking about the unification of the nation across borders, which is a very difficult undertaking. But “the Biblical force that five hundred years ago received an overwhelming impetus entrusts us with one more task,” which seems to be “the ultimate and great unification of the nation.” What this ultimate and great unification means exactly, it is difficult to say. It might be a spiritual union of Hungarian souls, but I still don’t know what do with “the recognition of truth which frees us,” which is supposedly necessary for the accomplishment of this task. I really wonder whether he himself knows what he is talking about.
Hungarian newspaper articles more or less came to the same conclusions I did, except that they didn’t even try to solve the puzzle of “the ultimate and great unification of the nation.” But György Gábor, a philosopher of religion who is always enlightening and often amusing, commented on Orbán’s “laughable ignorance” in matters of religion. Orbán described his government not only as Christian but also as “hitvalló,” literally “professor of faith.” The problem is that in Hungarian “hitvalló” means “confessor,” which originally meant someone venerated as a saint, Christian martyrs, people who were known for their moral perfection or who lived an ascetic life. Gábor added: “So, imagine now for a moment the pure and moral members of the government who are beyond reproach.” And, of course, there is the additional problem that “confessor” is a strictly Catholic title associated with sainthood.
I think it might be instructive to read what Angela Merkel had to say on this day. She stressed the importance of tolerance toward the wide variety of beliefs. “Those who embrace plurality must exercise tolerance—that is the historical experience of our continent,” she said. “Tolerance is the basis for peaceful togetherness in Europe.” This is exactly what Viktor Orbán rejects. Instead, he asks for “assistance in the form of prayers from [his] Protestant and, naturally, Catholic brethren” for his work for a Christian and Hungarian Hungary.